Donald Trump has Blurred the Line Between Populism and Fascism in a Dangerous WayRoundup
tags: fascism, authoritarianism, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro
Federico Finchelstein is professor of history at the New School and author of the new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies.
A key difference between populism and fascism is that, for populists, actual electoral results matter. In contrast, fascism implies permanent power, irrespective of the ballot box. Populism affirms the authoritarian idea that one person can fully personify “the people” and the nation — but it must be confirmed via electoral procedures.
Whereas fascism has reveled in lies, populism has respected the truth of the ballot box. This doesn’t mean it always advances democracy — indeed it frequently manipulates it. But it still derives power and depends on the integrity of the electoral system. That is why populist leaders have long recognized the value of respecting electoral results, even if they came out on the losing end of the democratic process.
But this distinction is beginning to fade. In this sense, President Donald Trump has been a trailblazer for global autocrats. Especially in his denial of the election’s results and embrace the "big lie” about voter fraud, Trump represents a historical turning point in populist politics, enabling and inspiring others — just like fascist dictators before him.
Consider the case of Juan Perón and Peronism, the movement he created in Argentina.
Perón was the strongman in a military junta dictatorship that ruled from 1943 through 1946. Despite coming to power by force, in 1943, Perón encouraged and participated in free democratic elections in 1946.
After the global defeat of fascism at the end of the Second World War, fascism, coups and military dictatorships had become toxic. So former fascists and militants of dictatorships tried to regain power through democratic electoral means.
In the early postwar period, politicians like Perón understood that elections provided a critical source of political legitimacy. He ran on a populist ticket that put forward a third way position beyond capitalism and communism. He won the 1946 presidential election, becoming the first populist leader in history to come to power.
Peronist populism borrowed elements of fascism. It was anti-liberal and created a messianic cult of leadership. It denounced the ruling elites, thwarted independent journalism and advanced a deep dislike for pluralism and political tolerance. But Perón was popularly elected, and thus distinct from fascists.
Like Perón, other Latin American populists in countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia came to power by affirming the legitimacy of electoral results in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Holding power depended upon winning real elections.
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